“Hippo. Yeah I've thought about this.”
I’m talking with George Clarke of Deafheaven about what animal he would want to be. The band is about to hit the stage in Melbourne as part of their four day tour that takes in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, which often misses out on whirlwind tours due to the distance (see my live review here). As we chat in the noisy back street outside the stage door, a patient fan waiting nearby to say hello, I find a guy who is thoughtful, intelligent, patient (if a little bewildered with my Australian humour), and generous with his thoughts.
“So hippos have no natural predators, cause they're really mean. They're mean motherfuckers. But, they're also the biggest chillers so they just like lie around, they eat, they sleep and they have sex. No one fucks with them cause they're really mean, and then when they do fuck with them, hippos kill them, and it just seems like this total paradise. The hippo. I've been youtubing videos of them..."
We've all had those moments where we hear a song or go to a gig or see some art and it changes our lives and Clarke tells me there's a lot of things that still inspire him.“I keep my eyes peeled a lot for things that inspire me and such. A recent artist that I’ve fallen for her work, her name is Ellen Rogers, she’s a photographer who was once based out of London and I guess lives in Manchester now, she does these analogue photographs. Alterations are done through (darkroom techniques), and she’s awesome! I’m a huge fan, I constantly reach out to her. I hope that the two of us will work together in some capacity.”
Is connecting the visual arts and music something we are getting better at?
“I think it’s certainly always been there, I think it just depends on the artist. Personally speaking, to put out music involves much more than just the music; it's the whole package including the visual representation. And I think all the greats, all the people that I’ve looked up to have understood that quality, so you pair the two. It's really just a matter of how much you want to give, how much care you're prepared to put in and the visual accompaniment to the music is still definitely a part of caring about your broader art or what have you.”
What's the most beautiful sound Clarke's ever heard?
“(thoughtful pause) Sometimes nothing. In fact given how chaotic things generally are, sometimes nothing. It's a rare moment. It really is the best noise – the low hiss of nothing”
Deafheaven are one of the growing list of guitar bands crossing over genre boundaries, and while this frustrates some of the purists, it's one of the reasons “Sunbather” has turned up near or at the top of 2013 AOTY lists from all over the metal and rock spectrum. It would be interesting to see how many music fans become lovers of hardcore vocals and drums because of this record, in the same way as Alcest introduced many alt/indie/post rock, and shoegaze listeners to black metal elements. But Clarke becomes a little frustrated at the mention of Alcest in that context:
“Stéphane (Paut) and I have talked tons of times, I mean he definitely showed me something at a certain point, but he knows, as well as I do, that we’re not the same, we’re not the same band, and he likes that and I like that but we get fucking annoyed at the comparison. I just want to get that out of the way – set the record straight”
It’s a comparison that’s clearly made often, and he's correct- they don’t sound or feel the same, a point brought home when you hear them live. Clarke also differs from Paut on a few philosophical aspects of music, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s their differences that are part of the reason they formed a strong friendship when touring together recently.
But it’s all cool and we get back to the matter of crossing boundaries, and I ask Clarke if people miss out by creating fences around genres and remaining within them.
“I think with heavier music – different kinds of metal – it definitely begins with a sense of community. I think that obviously these styles not being the most prominent styles in the broad scheme of things, those who do enjoy it sort of take on attributes to show each other non-verbally that they are on the same page and have common interests and I think that's a really important thing. But as a music lover and as a musician, I think it's a shame being narrow minded and it’s ultimately a bad thing. But I believe you can have both. You can look a certain way and identify with a single genre and what have you and listen to multiple things and be inspired by multiple things”
There certainly is a big group of music lovers who are hungry for new sounds and for experimentation and bands who use those “multiple things”, and I can sense Clarke getting into an area he could talk about for hours.
“I mean, why not? It’s so silly to think of it as anything else (other than experimenting)” He says it’s fine to become wedded to clichés but really you need to “enjoy the grander scope of things. It is what it is, and if you like it like it and if you love it you love it, and if you don’t you don’t.”
What about the way we judge music by comparing it with what a band has done previously or against other similar bands – does that again close our minds to discovering new experiences?
“I think if you truly care about a band you sort of grow with them. Even if you come in at a later album you check out their back catalogue and you love it so much and can see how it progressed over the years. I think if you truly care about someone you can see faults and you see growth and it’s interesting and all part of the grander experience. I think also that there’s such a volume of music and different styles coming out constantly, and always being bombarded by different artists that it’s hard to, you know, sit down with as many records of as many people as you can. So you’re going to naturally compare and write off and not think about something because maybe there’s no immediately strong connection. So those you really invest in I think you grow with and understand.”
“At least with records I’ve enjoyed, even with a band that I thought was fucking awesome and they fell off in my terms of what I think was good, I can still be at a certain point like ‘Oh well this is growing all the time’”
“I think with revival music (for example), it’s not really for me, but everything cycles and there’s no reason whatsoever to write off a new band because they sound similar to another act.”
I ask Clarke if there is in fact anything at all new at all? Aren’t bands by law of averages going to come up with stuff that reminds someone of something else? For example the song ‘Sunbather’ reminds me of ‘Retreat! Retreat!’ by 65daysofstatic but I don’t think Deafheaven sat down and thought ‘how can we use that sound’?...
“No no no no. I think that’s how things evolve. You take from what you enjoy and I guess when you reach a certain skill level, which takes years to develop, you have your own ideas and so on. Since the dawn of blues and rock ‘n’ roll it’s all people have ever done, they’ve taken an idea, they’ve interjected a new one, changed the style in some way… (imagine sound of Harley Davidson thundering past ). The idea of something new, to be completely unheard of, I don’t think it exists. No you’re just evolving.”
“And I don’t think people give that credit, and I think that’s terribly annoying, because I read reviews and I see people get written off all the time, comments like ‘the writer’s not investing in that’ and it’s not fair to the artist who’s trying to do their own approach to something they love.”
How important is it to Clarke for listeners to understand and feel what a song means to him personally?
“It’s not. It’s not. And we’ve always been that way. I’ve said this a million times and I’ll always say it- Deafheaven is nothing but what I like, what I feel, what I want and is a totally selfish endeavour. Now, when people connect with it, enjoy it, that makes it much more enjoyable for me because it’s enlightening to see something like that, but in terms of the creation, it’s not.”
I ask Clarke if he feels the record had come along at the right time?
“In terms of time I think it’s so hard to judge. I mean from a totally musician’s standpoint I could never envision I would do something that wasn’t like this because I enjoy it so much, so many things about this band and this type of music, I guess this was always our thing.”
“But yes this is a good time for music and I think that it’s important to do what you want, it’s important to not care about anything else, not be confined to genre limitations or anything like that, and if you are honest about what you’re doing and you are honest with what you love it will at least result in personal profit. Anything else like the tours we’ve done and the success of the album - we just did something that we wanted to do and didn’t give a fuck about anything else and happy that at a certain point had the balls to do it and feel good about it and put out something that I truly though was honest and soul-bearing if nothing else. It’s a good time for music, I feel very positive about the years to come and that we will enjoy new sounds. Music is soul and it’s never gonna die.”
On a completely different subject I had promised to ask why Kerry hated video games so much:
“It's just because we had this room mate who was obsessed with them and literally got woken at like four in the morning to guns shooting and it's fucking crazy, and that's all that was. Play video games all you want but if you wake me talking shit to a dude...”
I guess this is exactly the sort of stuff in life that makes a man want to be a hippo.